ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — As the Dallas Mavericks set their sights on prized free agents like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, O.J. Mayo was left to wonder what his future held.
Told to wait around until the dust settled with other targets, Mayo ultimately received no invitation to return. What was next? The former third overall pick in the draft was looking to find a place where he could leave his mark.
Mayo decided that place was Milwaukee, as he signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Bucks in July. After a rocky ending in Memphis and just one year in Dallas, Mayo is ready to settle in and focus on basketball.
“The last two years were kind of like a one-year deal,” Mayo said. “Automatically you put some sort of pressure on yourself to perform at the best level.
“Now I have a comfort level. I have a three-year deal, and I’m happy the Bucks gave me that opportunity. I’m very blessed. I’m looking forward to giving it all I’ve got and continuing to build the organization to where it once was.”
Two years into his career, Mayo looked worthy of going third overall in the 2008 draft. He averaged 18.5 points per game as a rookie and followed it up by scoring 17.5 per game in year two. Mayo’s role quickly diminished as Lionel Hollins and the Grizzlies built their roster.
Mayo’s scoring average dropped to 11.3 and he started just 17 games in 2010-11. He became the sixth man permanently the following season, coming off the bench in all 66 games. Memphis placed other players on top of their building plan, and it was clear Mayo wasn’t a part of it.
The Grizzlies didn’t extend a qualifying offer to Mayo, making him an unrestricted free agent. It was a quick fall from grace, but Bucks general manager John Hammond was impressed with the way Mayo handled it.
“He comes right out of the chute and averages 18 points a game his rookie year,” Hammond said. “Lionel Hollins came in (as coach) and had him come off the bench.
“I just know looking from afar, I really appreciate how he handled that situation. You never heard him say a bad word about a teammate, a bad word about a coach or ‘trade me.’ I hope he performs well. I expect him to do that. But I’m real excited about the kind of person he will be for our team.”
Thus far, Mayo has embraced a leadership role with the Bucks. He spotted rookies Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nate Wolters struggling during wind sprints in a recent practice and volunteered to complete the running with them.
The Bucks have a couple of proven leaders on the roster, but Mayo stepping up would be important because of his potential role on the team.
“I’m going to do whatever I need to do in order for us to be successful,” Mayo said. “If I have to be the tough guy, if I have to bite, scratch, whatever we need to do.”
Hammond has stressed he didn’t sign Mayo to directly replace Monta Ellis, but Milwaukee has an obvious scoring void. Mayo has proven he can score in the NBA and was Dallas’ leading scorer early last season when Dirk Nowitzki was out. Filling the point guard and shooting guard position was a priority for the Bucks when reconstructing their roster and they feel a hungry Mayo is a perfect fit.
“We’re looking for pieces to the puzzle and he’s certainly a very valuable piece,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “He’s at that position now where he’s ready to turn the corner in his NBA career.”One of the reasons he became so intriguing to us is he’s a guy who has some size at the two-guard spot. He can score. He’s not afraid to take the big shot.”
Mayo’s toughness is something that can rub off on a young team. When asked if he would be willing to be the guy to take the last shot for the Bucks, Mayo nodded his head and said “I ain’t scared of too much in this world.”
In order for the Bucks to contend for the playoffs, Mayo needs to be one of, if not the main guy in Milwaukee’s offense. But Mayo’s mind isn’t thinking that way. He hasn’t set a number of points he wants to score per game or anything individual. To him, it’s all about helping the Bucks get better.
“I think sometimes when we come into a situation where we’re so honed in on having individual goals and what I want to do for myself,” Mayo said. “When that doesn’t happen it’s kind of like ‘Oh, I didn’t succeed or I failed.’ I just want to come and continue what’s been built here.
“Last year (the Bucks) were the eighth seed but at the same time it was a losing season. If we can have a winning season we can prove to the city and organization that we are getting better. Hopefully we can get to a fifth or sixth seed this year and continue growing, show we’re making improvements and strides.”
With 11 newcomers, Mayo understands the process could take time in Milwaukee, but he hopes the fans will have a little patience if the Bucks are playing hard and together.
“I think the fans understand whether the game is being played right or wrong,” Mayo said. “If we’re losing every night and you’re playing the right way, maybe it’s just not your time right now.
“Or maybe experience is kicking us in the tail end. I think our fans can respect that. But if we’re going up jacking the ball and throwing the ball in the 19th row, not losing in a very good fashion, it will be like everywhere else. There will be some replacements around here.”